Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Will transliteracy make all this research obsolete?

I went to a conference yesterday about working across subject boundaries, such as computer scientists working with performers and ethnographers. I found the entire thing so refreshing and interesting, people talking about the breadth of research experience instead of just channelling all their thoughts into an imagined problem, like the children's librarians at the conference at the weekend. The workshop that unsettled me the most and has made me worried that this research project will ultimately be of little value in the real world was one on transliteracy which looked at the situation we have these days of working out how to read not only written and printed symbols, but also media, "orality", signing and digital social networks.

The argument that reading text is not the only literacy has been around for some time, but the workshop put the argument in the context that it is not really necessary for people to do so. There is a tribe of Amazonian Indians who have decided that only certain members of their tribe need to be able to read and write to communicate with the rest of the world, the others have to concentrate on the real things in life such as hunting for food. This reminded me that Welsh was basically an oral language and it took many centuries for the druids to allow poets and story tellers to write down their works, or so it is said. They were afraid of the loss of skill, the long memories passed down in story form by bards. I think that the skill of verbal memory in the population has declined or is it that the people with those skills are not encouraged and celebrated.

The children's librarian conference at the weekend was so concerned with making everyone the same, to enhance reading so that the entire population could read Jane Eyre or Wuthering heights and enjoy those books that I came away thinking that really people should have the choice to be literate or not. There should be a mixture of skills in the population, we can't all be academics and we can't all be leaders or there would be no-one to teach and no-one to lead. So, is a little vehicle trundling around the towns and countryside distributing books to children a total anachronism in the forthcoming digital society? Will there be any point in doing that when children will be learning to read and keyboard on their "i" or "e" devices that have that ability to download thousands of stories and gallons of information? It seems a little pathetic.

A managing director of a leading publishing house commented at the librarian's conference that it did not matter if words were published in books, i-phones, kindles or what ever, there would always be authors with stories to tell. The leader of the transliteracy workshop, who invented the term, talked about the need in companies and organisations for an individual that can understand and interpret data in whatever form it takes. I commented that in my world that person was a librarian, and I fully believe that the librarian of the future is someone who can "Twitter", use Goggle and other databases, add tags, navigate the web and understand the dewey decimal system with equal ease. That person would be transliterate. This leads to the question does everyone need to be? Like the Amazonian Indian tribe, surely only some people in a society really needs to be while the rest of the population gets on with life, with plumbing, making bread, growing potatoes and persuading children that reading and adding up is a good idea.

So why bother to find out if a little library van has an impact on children's lives? I think it is because it is happening now, no-one has found out the effect that it has on children. In the future it may not just carry books. Although I believe that it does not just carry books at the moment they also carry stories and the stories can be hidden inside people as well as books and electronic Internet devices. The service cannot change if it does not know what it happening at the moment. If the impact and social effect is not charted and recorded then something important in the development of a child from a passive learner to an active participant in their own learning may be lost. If the study finds out that other inspirational ways of doing the same thing are more effective, then the study will show that authorities can cheerfully stop the services with no harm to the development of our children.

Transliteracy was defined by Professor Sue Thomas of the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University, Leicester. The website is

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